One of the best ways to determine how history will judge a politician is not to tot up what they achieved but to try to evaluate the depths they sometimes sank to as they pursued their careers.
John Howard was enormously electorally successful, after and before he wasn’t, but the depths of his deviousness and cynicism were exemplified by his conscious decision to import to Australia the wedge tactics the George W. Bush administration had developed to prise blue collar voters from the Democrats. How does one balance Malcolm Fraser’s later life with his complicity along with the Royal family in the Whitlam dismissal? Tim Fischer was a brave and admirable man but plumbed the deaths in his determination to ‘extinguish’ Native Title. Does Peter Dutton have anything other than ever deeper depths of authoritarianism, cruelty and cynicism? Of course there are exemplary exceptions on all sides of politics. Nick Greiner, Dick Hamer, Lindsay Thompson, Bob McMullan, Barry Jones, Steve Bracks and some others all spring to mind.
But the current Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is in a category of his own purely and simply because of his new found commitment to combining acknowledgment of Country with a US-derived thank you to veterans for service just like the irritating custom of flight attendants on US airlines. Sadly the thousands of traumatised US veterans who make up a significant proportion of the homeless in US cities rarely get to experience the flight attendants rote gratitude.
Given everything else the man does – giving religious fundamentalists the right to discriminate; supressing the right to free speech and action; denying future generations the opportunity to avoid the worst of climate change; persecuting welfare recipients; and presiding over corrupt and incompetent policies such as water management, aged care and refugees – the thank you for service glibness may seem minor.
The Prime Minister’s combination of the acknowledgment of Country – however insincere that is – with thanks to your veterans may appear to be at best just another theft of yet another US political hypocrisy or an example of profound historical ignorance. But fundamentally it is a despicable act which combines superficial acknowledgment of the significance of the original inhabitants of our country with denial of the unforgivable treatment successive generations of politicians and white Australians meted out to Indigenous returned service people.
So with Remembrance Day approaching (and with apologies to Paul Keating and Don Watson) we might ask ourselves whether the Prime Minister – rather than thanking veterans for their service in conjunction with acknowledgement of Country – ought to apologise for what Australia did.
We denied Indigenous soldiers the right to vote; we denied them the right to go into pubs; we denied them the right to join the RSL; we denied them the right to have title to their historic lands; we denied them the right to soldier settlement opportunities even on land which was rightfully theirs; we denied them the right to be counted in the census; and, we denied them the right to many other benefits other veterans received.
We belatedly put up statues and told children stories about the odd individual such as Major Reg Saunders who fought in the Middle East or Leonard Waters Australia’s only WWII Indigenous pilot.
And the Department of Veterans Affairs website points out that about a third of Indigenous soldiers died of wounds or disease while serving and many others came home with dreadful wounds. It even mentions – which must horrify Keith Windschuttle – that there were Frontier Wars although DVA’s recognition is not enough to prompt the Australian War Memorial to include a section on the Wars despite planning to spend millions showcasing the weapons produced by some of its most assiduous donors who simply recycle a minute part of the billions they take from us for over-priced and doubtfully useful weapons while getting a useful tax deduction.
But meanwhile the odd person who died of typhus in the Sudan still gets more prominence at the War Memorial than the great Indigenous warriors of our past.
The Prime Minister, being a fundamentalist Christian, probably believes the old saw that there are no atheists in combat. The reality is that when it comes to foxholes the most significant thing about them is that there are no bull-shitters there – particularly ones like him.
Noel Turnbull served in the artillery in South Vietnam. He is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/